Saturday, September 30, 1978: The Invisible Man Returns (1940) / Jungle Woman (1944)

Synopsis: At the Radcliffe family estate, a grim vigil is being kept for young Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), who has been convicted of the murder of his brother Michael. The family is certain that Geoffrey is innocent; nevertheless he has been convicted of the crime and is sentenced to be hanged at 8:00 am.

Geoffrey’s cousin Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke) is trying to console Geoffrey’s fiance Helen (Nan Grey) but she is despondent until the arrival of Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton). Learning that Cobb’s last-ditch appeal for a reprieve has failed, Griffin hurries to the prison to meet Radcliffe one last time.

Shortly after Griffin’s visit, Radcliffe mysteriously disappears from his cell, even though it is closely guarded. The prison officials are baffled, but as soon as Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) of Scotland Yard hears the name Frank Griffin, he is certain he knows what has happened.

An invisible Geoffrey moves through the woods some distance from the prison, finding a suitcase that has been left for him. He pulls clothing from it and proceeds to a safe house arranged by Frank Griffin.

Visiting the lab on the grounds of the Radcliffe family’s coal mine, Sampson shows Griffin a police file of his brother, John Griffin, who nine years earlier formulated a chemical that could turn a man invisible, and then tested it on himself with disastrous results. But Griffin insists he has nothing to do with his brother’s work.

Reunited with Helen at the safe house, Radcliffe rests for a while. But the house owners’s dog barks ceaselessly, attracting the attention of the police, and Radcliffe is forced to flee.

Discovering that hapless mine employee Willy Spears (Alan Napier) has suddenly been promoted makes Radcliffe suspicious, especially when Spears tells Griffin that the lab will soon be shut down. Radcliffe uses his power of invisibility to track down the ones who framed him for murder, while Griffin desperately seeks an antidote to the invisibility drug — knowing that if he fails, Radcliffe will go insane….

Comments: Universal got a lot of mileage out of its various horror franchises: Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy each kicked out a number of profitable sequels.  Oddly, The Invisible Man didn’t prove to be quite as durable.  Tonight’s movie, The Invisible Man Returns, was the first and really the only decent follow-up.  The Invisible Man’s Revenge, The Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent were all misfires of one kind or another.

The problem seems to be that once the protagonists turn invisible, their story options narrow considerably; the story can either focus on the invisible protagonist’s hijinks (creeping around like a ghost, listening in on private conversations, or smashing things like a poltergeist), or on the authorities’ efforts to locate and detain their quarry.

But hunting an invisible man can remain suspenseful for only so long.  And the poltergeist route, as we’ve seen, gets tiresome rather quickly — particularly in Invisible Agent, where the thick-headed hero succeeds not because he’s clever, or even because he’s invisible, but because the Nazis he’s fighting are an uncommonly dim-witted and cowardly bunch.

That The Invisible Man Returns succeeds at all is largely due to its brisk pace and clever screenplay, which relies less on the invisibility gimmick than it does on a simple mystery story: who framed Geoffrey Radcliffe, and why? 

John Sutton’s Frank Griffin connects us to the events of the first film, but Sutton himself is secondary to the action.  Nan Grey gets a good deal more to do than most female leads of the time (certainly more than the dismal Gloria Stuart in the first film) and her performance is uncommonly intelligent, as we see her constantly trying to suss out Geoffrey’s erratic mental state.  Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who famously disliked appearing in genre pictures, is nevertheless splendid here.  His Richard Cobbe is a smooth and reassuring presence throughout the early part of the picture; we trust him implicitly, and when his betrayal becomes clear it adds enormous impact to the final act.

Watching Vincent Price in this film makes me empathize with casting directors in the early 1940s.  It was clear that Price was an uncommon talent, yet finding the right roles for him must have been extraordinarily difficult.  He clearly wasn’t cut out to be a romantic lead, yet he was in some ways too warm and sympathetic to play a conventional bad guy. Early in his career he was often cast as a character who seemed pleasant on the surface, but who proved to be hiding a sinister agenda (we’re clearly supposed to wonder which way he would fall in The Invisible Man Returns, and both Laura (1944) and Shock (1946) make exquisite use of Price’s warm yet vaguely unsettling demeanor).  In time this dilemma would be addressed by constructing the sort of hybrid character that Price specialized in playing: the grimly amused owner of an existential spookhouse, the same sort of character that Lugosi tried unsuccessfully to play in The Raven–  and one can only imagine the sinister delight that Price would have brought to that role.

Jungle Woman

Synopsis: Dr. Carl Fletcher (J. Carroll Naish) is being held for the murder of Paula Dupree (Acquanetta), whom we’d met in Captive Wild Woman (1943). Through the testimony of Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) and his former girlfriend (now wife) Beth (Evelyn Ankers) we hear again the strange story of Paula: that she was not a woman at all, but a gorilla named Cheela that had been transformed into a woman’s image by glandular researcher Sigmund Walters (John Carradine); how she began appearing at the Whipple Circus where Fred Mason tamed wild beasts and how she subsequently fell in love with him. Dr. Fletcher reveals that he had been at the Whipple Circus the night Cheela / Paula had been shot, and gained permission to take possession of the gorilla’s body. Discovering that the gorilla (which had been pronounced dead) was actually alive, Fletcher restored it to full health.

Fletcher also reveals that he had purchased the sanitarium that had been owned by the late Dr. Walters, and once again transformed Cheela into Paula Dupree.

Fletcher’s daughter Joan (Lois Collier) shows up at the sanitarium with her boyfriend Bob Whitney (Richard Davis). Paul approaches Bob and introduces herself, which astonishes Fletcher: up until now, Fletcher says, she hadn’t spoken a word.

It soon become clear that Paula has fallen for Bob. She waits obsessively for him to appear at the sanitarium, and she becomes insanely jealous when she sees Joan kissing him.

Now that her jungle passion has been unleashed, Joan is in terrible danger from Paula, even if she doesn’t know it yet….

Comments: Though barely an hour in length, Jungle Woman spends nearly a quarter of its running time recapping the events of Captive Wild Woman, and we’re treated to a number of recycled flashback scenes which include scenes that were in turn recycled (or re-recycled, I guess) from 1933’s The Big Cage. Say what you want about this picture, it’s very economical.

I will admit it’s fun to see so many Universal contract players together here. Aside from Milburn Stone, Evelyn Ankers and Acquanetta herself, all of whom we saw in the last picture, we also have Samuel S. Hinds (The Strange Case of Dr. Rx) as the coroner, Douglas Dumbrille (The Frozen Ghost) as the prosecutor, Lois Collier (The Crimson Canary) as Joan and J. Carroll Naish (House of Frankenstein) as Dr. Fletcher. As is often the case, the versatile Naish is the standout in the cast; his gentle research scientist is a nice counterpoint to the gland-obsessed Dr. Walters from the previous film (oddly enough, Naish had himself played a gorilla physically altered to resemble a human in Dr. Renault’s Secret at Fox the year before).

The flashbacks are clumsily framed with a lugubrious coroner’s inquest setup, in which witness after witness dumps expository information from the previous film for the benefit of audience members who missed (or have forgotten) the events of the previous film. But it makes little difference: this movie sports not only recycled footage but a recycled plot, with Paula becoming obsessed with another guy (this time Joan’s doofus boyfriend) for no clearly-explained reason.

Acquanetta was pefectly fine in Captive Wild Woman because her character never spoke. Jungle Woman’s biggest gamble is giving dialogue to the Venezuelan Volcano, and this gamble does not pay off. Every time she opens her mouth she’s in trouble. Even the most mundane lines (“Hello Bob, I’m Paula”) are uttered in a strained, stilted monotone. Perhaps director Reginald LeBorg thought audiences might attribute this awkwardness to the fact that Paula only recently transformed to human form from being a gorilla, but not even a recent change of species can excuse Acquanetta’s painful delivery. To make matters worse, LeBorg allowed her even more dialogue in Dead Man’s Eyes, which was an even greater mistake. I don’t know if Acquanetta ever took acting classes, but if she did I hope she got her money back.

The familiar cast helps make up for for the paucity of the production, but just barely. Jungle Woman fails in just about every category: it’s dull, derivative, silly and is little more than a reminder of just how far Universal’s horror output had fallen since its glory days.

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